By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Those of us fortunate enough to have watched the 1960 televised debate between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon realized we had seen history made. That is, all except Ross Barnett, who mind you, slept through it, intentionally.
I was covering a meeting – Barnett in particular – of the Southern Governors’ Conference in Hot Springs, Ark. Ross earlier had created a stir by pushing a scheme for the South to bolt the Democratic ticket headed by Kennedy and choose slates of unpledged presidential electors in the November election.
Morning after the debate when we reporters in a news conference asked Barnett who he thought won the debate, the Mississippi governor jolted newsmen awake answering: “I didn’t watch it, I went to bed.” Though unimaginable at the time, this was one of the great ironies of history: Barnett, the drawling trial lawyer from Standing Pine in the far reaches of rural Mississippi, four times crossing paths with the young Boston Irishman and World War II Navy hero.
Few remember – or care to – that Barnett tried to be placed in nomination for president against Kennedy at the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic National Convention. What a fiasco that became. Tom P. Brady, a notoriously racist judge from Brookhaven, was supposed to nominate Barnett but Barnett’s secretary arrived late at the convention hall with a voluminous typed nomination speech. When she dropped the speech copy over the gallery railing for Brady to fetch, pages of the speech fluttered widely over the California delegation seated below. Convention officials then put a quick end to both Brady’s nominating speech and Barnett’s candidacy.
Barnett’s unpledged electors carried Mississippi but his scheme made only a momentary bump in the road in JFK’s election. White Citizens Council wizard Bill Simmons stood at Barnett’s elbow when the electors cast their votes for Harry Byrd, the arch-conservative senator from Virginia.
Two years later, Barnett confronted JFK by defying federal authority to the brink of a virtual Civil War, refusing to comply with federal court orders to admit one black man, James Meredith, to the state’s prestigious all-white University of Mississippi. A night-long campus riot would erupt on Sept. 30, 1962, after some 400 federal marshals escorted Meredith to the campus. Two persons died, dozens of marshals were wounded, vehicles burned and dozens overcome from tear gas. The violence was not quelled until Kennedy dispatched some 25,000 Army troops and National Guardsmen to Oxford.
While Barnett publicly vowed to never allow Meredith to enroll at Ole Miss, secretly he was negotiating by phone with both the president and Attorney General Robert Kennedy and promising state troopers would maintain law and order when Meredith was brought on the campus. History tells us while the campus riot raged, 200 state patrolmen suddenly withdrew, opening the gates to hundreds of armed outsiders.
On tapes of the Barnett-Kennedy talks, Barnett begins his showdown conversation with the president, in typical backwoods buffoonery, telling JFK: “I appreciate your interest in our poultry program and all those things.” Clearly mystified, Kennedy quickly switches to the serious business at hand. (For background: several Dixie governors from other broiler-producing states recently met in Jackson with Barnett, hoping to curb a huge drop in the broiler market, so they called the White House for help. Evidently JFK, with far more serious matters on his mind – including reports of Soviet missiles in Cuba – quickly promised the governors to buy tons of chickens for troops based in Germany.)
While Ross Barnett in 1962 rode the crest of unprecedented popularity, portraying Jack Kennedy as Mississippi’s household devil, five years later when Barnett sought a second term as governor, he was soundly rejected. Sadly, by then, Americans had mourned the assassination of JFK.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.